"Are you here for the drumming?"
The little voice came out of the summer night, and once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see its owner clearly. A little boy was standing next to me, his smile as wide as a hammock strung out between two palm trees.
"Yes," I replied. "Are you a drummer?"
"No, I'm a dancer!" he squealed enthusiastically and then off he ran, all of three and a half feet in dark, baggy shorts and a white t-shirt.
It turns out four-year-old Davis, the one man welcoming bandwagon to the Lebeha Drumming Center located in Hopkins, Belize, was both a dancer and a drummer... but more on that later.
My husband and I were tipped off to the Garifuna drummers of Hopkins one cold February night as the snow swirled outside the frosted windows of our Toronto home. We were planning our summer trip to Belize and had posted a question on The Belize Forums (a website dedicated to helping travellers going to Belize) about unique things families could do around Jaguar Reef Lodge, the place we were staying at in the southern part of Belize. Sure enough, someone who had returned from the area alerted us to the informal jam sessions that take place nightly in the village, just one mile away from the resort.
The Garifuna are an ethnic group with a history worthy of a screenplay. They can trace their roots to a group of Africans that were heading for a life of slavery in the new world when fate intervened. The boat they were on sunk and the shipwrecked survivors escaped to Saint Vincent Island in the Caribbean over 300 years ago. Once there, the group mixed with the native population and eventually adopted the Carib language but continued to hold on to many of their African traditions including their religious beliefs and musical inspirations.
In the years that followed, the Garifuna were banished from Saint Vincent by the ruling British, leaving them no choice but to seek a new home. A mass exodus of the Garifuna population led to the creation of villages on other Caribbean islands and along the coasts of southern Belize, Guatemala and northern Honduras.
Many weeks later, we find ourselves leaving Jaguar Reef just as the warm winds of the Caribbean begin picking up in the early evening. Our destination: Lebeha Drumming Center located on the North side of Hopkins. In tow, our not-quite two-year-old daughter, Madison.
I wonder if she'll be frightened by the loud drumming. I voice my concerns to my husband who promptly reminds me that Mady had already taken part in some drumming sessions at her daycare, which shares the same building with a Canadian native daycare. If anything, he reminds me, she will probably want to drum along.
We maneuver through the darkening streets of Hopkins (part shanty town, part Beach-side resort and all Caribbean charm) in our rental SUV, still dripping red mud from our daytime jaunt to Cockscomb Basin Sanctuary, the only jaguar preserve in the world, located a few miles down the road.
The streets are teeming with townsfolk, walking and riding on bikes. People stop whatever they're doing to watch us go by and most give us a wave. We know if we get lost we won't have a problem finding the place, but in no time we spot a small hand-painted sign with the words Lebeha Drumming Center.
We park and that's when Davis pops out of nowhere only to disappear just as quickly. We follow his trajectory and spot some weak lights in the darkness and head that way under the swishing of palm trees.
"Doggie," Mady giggles and suddenly I see a large dog bound up to my side. He's the color of charcoal and looks like an overgrown greyhound. We determine he's not dangerous or a stray and allow the baby to pet him, much to his delight.
Under the thatched roof of a large hut with a variety of drums and other instruments hanging from above, we find a man and a couple of kids sitting in almost total darkness.
Jabbar Lembey greets us warmly and asks if we're there for the drumming while turning on some lights. He explains that the kids are playing basketball and they should be by shortly. Not a problem we say, besides Mady is having fun petting the dog and Davis is showing us his drumming technique on a scruffy, wooden table.
Dorothy Pettersen, an ex-pat from Vancouver, walks by with an armful of freshly laundered sheets. She runs the centre with her husband Jabbar. In addition to the drumming, there is a small cafe and a cabana they rent out to tourists. I ask her what Lebeha means and she answers "the end" and then explains how it all began.
"Tourists staying with us would ask where they could go to see Garifuna drummers and we would send them to Dangriga, the main town, where drummers would gather to play for tourists. There wasn't anyone in the area doing this sort of thing so that's when Jabbar started the centre."
It's been operating for a year to great success and everyone is welcome regardless of finances as no payment is asked of participants. The centre runs on donations and goodwill. As well, nothing is regimented. People and children drop by to perform or to listen and watch whenever.
After a short wait, some lanky teenagers, clad in basketball jerseys, arrive. They grab their instruments and the drumming begins.
We listen to the frenetic beat and watch the masterful hands of the drummers. The musicians begin to sing and Davis jumps up, swaying his little hips to the rhythm with a trance-like look on his face.
Mady is on my lap and my feet are tapping away to the wonderful music as if possessed. A few more dancers join Davis, but it's clear that he's the star dancer going from one side of the hut to the other in large side swoops.
Suddenly one more child joins the group: Mady has broken free from my grip and joins in, trying desperately to follow the lead of the older kids. Alas, her inexperience is betraying her and the dancing comes out as jarring, awkward jabs instead of beat-matched grooves. Nevertheless, everyone cheers her on and from the look on her face she's feeling it: the heart and soul of Garifuna culture.
As we say our good-byes to our hosts and thank the young performers, Jabbar actually thanks us for coming and particularly for bringing our little girl. He explains the exchange of cultural experiences is a great thing, especially when kids are the participants.
That's what Lebeha is all about. The kids love it, of course. The ones that play the drums, the ones that dance and those who listen and watch.
Playing on drums made by the legendary Garifuna drum maker, Austin Rodriguez, is great. So is learning some groovy dance moves. But in the process what is being passed on to the younger Belizeans are the traditions of their ancestors, a culture so unique that it was recognized by UNESCO as "a masterpiece of the worldwide human oral and intangible heritage."
As we head out, the drumming begins again and the music follows us into our car and right to the outskirts of town as the stars shine brightly and the wind blows warmly.
The Lebeha Boys have recently put out a CD that can be purchased online. The CD called "Lebeha Drumming: Lebeha Boys, Garifuna Youth of Belize" has been pre-nominated (meaning it is in the running for a nomination) for a Grammy in the Best Traditional World Music category. For more information: www.lebeha.com.
Travel writer A.P. Rodrigues can be contacted through R + R Creative